My wife and I translate Japanese anime for a living. This month, we had worked on two very different anime series. One was from the early 1980s, the other was from 2009. My wife asked me about the target groups for those two shows. Specifically, the ages. Because the anime from the 1980s was much, much simpler. Not just the design or the technical aspects. The voice actors made far less effort towards realism, there were hardly any sounds like sighs or grunts or groans. The stories were simple and straightforward. The new show was essentially a regular action-adventure show, only animated instead of live-action. The characters and themes, the entire storyline, were complex and thought through. I guessed that the old show would be tagged for ages 12 and up, while the minimum age for the new show would be set as 16.
Animation really isn’t for kids anymore. It used to be, though, when I was young. Back then, animation was for children. And rightly so. There were programs like Sealab 2020 and Star Trek the Animated Series and Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle. Or, if you prefer, Scooby Doo and Casper. Or even Captain Future. The following decade saw shows like Thundercats or Transformers. But even in the 1980s, these shows were fairly simple matters. By todays standards, they were childish.
Disney had absolute dominion of the feature animation market, and made sure that their animated movies were suitable for even the youngest children.
When you grew into your teens, you had become too old for animation. At least you wouldn’t admit to liking it. But that was okay, animation didn’t seem to age with you, so you left it behind for the younger generation.
These days, however, most animation is on a level where adults can enjoy it as much as children. I am not only talking about anime, which has grown up considerably. Or would you let a child watch something as scary, complex and bizarre as Paranoia Agent?
Instead, modern animation is written on different levels. The Incredibles, Up, Wall-E have layers that a child can enjoy, while adults can enjoy these movies as well, if for different reasons. Even the standard Disney animated movie is far more complex and even violent than its predecessors.
Now, bear in mind that I don’t have insider knowledge, so I can’t know for certain. I’m operating from my own memory here, and I can only speak for the western world. I’m sure that in Japan, anime simply became increasingly adult and complex to meet the demands of their evolving marketplace. I imagine it was a process similar to the increasing complexity of US comic books.
I believe that what happened here in the west was Ralph Bakshi. Fritz the Cat
Heavy Traffic and Coonskin, to name just three of his earlier works, were quite anarchistic and subversive films that used animation as a form of expression. The films taught their audience that just because it’s animated doesn’t mean it has to be for children.
When Bakshi served the audiences with The Lord of the Rings (1978)
and Fire and Ice (1983),
he went beyond the fringe movements and entered the mainstream. Suddenly, everyone got to see that animation was capable of a lot of the same things as live-action movies. Teenagers, who used to think that animation was beneath them, rediscovered a whole new world.
If you look at the release dates of these movies, one thing becomes obvious: the people who were young when Bakshi’s movies came out are now themselves working in animation. (Even if, like me, they only translate anime.) Modern animation doesn’t just reflect the different technological possibilities, it also reflects the altered perspective of a generation.